Friday, June 26, 2009

Transit Can't Afford This

Two stories reflect the quandry facing transit operating agencies. One talks about how this week's Washington Metro (WMATA) crash, which killed nine, highlights the financial problems agencies face in maintaining their infrastructures and how they could increase safety risks.

Yet at the same time, they need to do a better job of managing their expenses, particularly labor. E.J. McMahon, in his NY Fiscal Watch blog, reports that more than 10 percent of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's workforce of 78,393 employees took home more than $100,000 last year in total pay (base salary and overtime). The figure includes 654 whose compensation exceeded $150,000.
Eleven of the 654 employees who earned more than $150,000 in 2008 were Long Island Railroad car repairmen who earned an average of $206,000—which was $143,000 over their average base pay rate of $63,000.
Nice work if you can get it, but something is amiss when an agency that just foisted a 10 percent fare hike on its riders and forced New York State residents to pay higher taxes to support it, allows this to go on. Clearly, the Long Island Rail Road needs to do a better job of managing its payroll and both the MTA and state legislature need to do a better job of monitoring what's going on there.

LA Crash a Black Eye for Privatization

Last year's Metrolink crash, which claimed 25 lives near Chatsworth, seems to have another casualty, privatization. The Los Angeles Times report that the agency has approved a plan for a one-year transition from the current operator, Connex. Unless it opts to give the contract to Amtrak, Metrolink may soon be hiring its own operating crews.
Metrolink officials essentially had no choice but to act, in part because Connex -- which had been accused of lax oversight of engineers and conductors -- no longer wanted the job and other rail service companies balked at accepting the potential liability for any Metrolink accidents.

Running Down the Wrong Track

Even though I haven't been writing about trains of late, I've followed with interest the plight of Tri-Rail, the Florida regional rail line running from West Palm Beach to Miami. The line, which carried four million passengers last year, is in a financial bind because the counties it serves - Palm Beach, Broward and Dade - and the state of Florida reduced operating aid.

Consequently, it raised fares 25 percent and threatened to severely cut back on service. That would cause even more trouble for Tri-Rail since it would have violated the agreement with Uncle Sam to fund the recently completed double-tracking of the railroad's mainline. Uncle Sam could demand our (U.S. taxpayers) money be paid back if the railroad, which faces the possibility of shutting down altogether in 2011, reduced service.

Today comes word from the South Florida Business Journal that the railroad found a way to avoid the service cuts. But is it worth the price? To keep all of its trains running, Tri-Rail will move $18 million from its capital budget to cover its operating expenses.

Hopefully, this will be a one-time solution for dealing with a crisis and by next year the railroad will have a dedicated source of state funding so it can manage its cash flow. Deferred maintenance is a dangerous route to follow. People forget what happened to Penn Central and the New York City subways in the 1970s. And with recent deadly crashes in Washington and Los Angeles we have tragic examples of what happens when operating agencies cut corners.

Meanwhile, I am happy that Tri-Rail will keep its trains running, even if the ride gets a litte bumpier.

I'm Back

Took an unannounced and unplanned vacation from doing this blog. Time to get writing again. See you soon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Rockford, Illinois Derailment Incident

Today, I would like to address a topic that could only at best be considered tangential to passenger trains, but nevertheless impacts the entire railroad industry, freight AND passenger, and for that matter society as a whole.

While obviously no conclusions can be drawn until the NTSB completes their investigation and their report is released next year, it will be interesting to learn if the provision under the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 - RSIA '08 - calling for installation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on any line over which HAZMAT (HAZardous MATerial) is handled, would have avoided or minimized the Friday June 19 incident occurring at Rockford, IL (and for that matter within 500 yards of a home in which friends of mine once resided). One thing I do know is that PTC would have had no impact whatever at the June 1996 Weyauwega, WI derailment involving HAZMAT. It would appear there are now two major HAZMAT incidents occurring in the Midwest (and both involving the Canadian National whether in actuality or by succession) and for which PTC would not have done anything to prevent them.

But the fact remains that RSIA '08, which mandated that PTC be installed not only on lines over which passenger trains are operated but also where trains handling HAZMAT are operated as well, was born from when, at Chatsworth, CA this past September, a passenger train collided with a freight train resulting in fatalities. Investigations have clearly established Passenger Engineer negligence. Congress in knee jerk fashion passed legislation and with about four months left in office, President Bush signed it. While it is one thing to have a PTC system where passenger trains are operated in any volume (there is always the public trough to pay for that), it is something else to place upon the investor owned Class I rail system the burden of equipping all lines handling HAZMAT with PTC when two incidents can be cited in which no benefit from PTC would arise. Legislative bodies do have their way of the knee jerk reaction; I wonder what they will come up with as a result of Rockford (escape lanes at highway X-ings)?

Having spent eleven years of my "post-college" working life in the railroad industry, I know all too well of injustices (some of my railroad career was in Labor Relations) that can occur from speculation as to the cause of an incident prior to release of information by the NTSB or a complete investigation "on the property". Accordingly, I will not be party to any speculations that seem to have a way of moving forth on the internet, and I sincerely hope others here will hold same. However, as one can readily surmise, I am quite skeptical with regards to any benefit the Class I railroad industry will receive from installation of Positive Train Control over lines that handle HAZMAT. The two incidents noted here would not have been mitigated in any manner had PTC been active.

While the personal injury and physical damage costs of Rockford, as well as of course in the case with Weyauwega, will be severe (the uninsured portion of Weyauwega claims may have contributed to Wisconsin Central's demise, but that IS speculation on my part), but so will the costs of PTC as mandated by RSIA '08. Who will pay for the latter; all shippers (higher freight rates) or only those shipping HAZMAT. If the latter, which classes (not all of them go boom with equal ferocity)? But on the other hand, shippers will also pay the higher insurance premiums that surely will result.

In that there was a fatality involving an innocent motorist, i.e. one who was obeying all applicable traffic laws, Rockford can only be considered tragic. While steps within and without the railroad industry must be taken to avoid a reoccurrence, I'm not certain that legislating a costly train control system is an effective solution. May wise heads prevail.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Amtrak Major Passenger Car Order - Thoughts

A major car order would certainly establish that Amtrak is in the game to play and it is here to stay. While I am not dismissing the projects that Amtrak has allocated its ARRA '09 Stimulus appropriations as meaningless "make work", many are comparatively invisible to John Q. Such an order would certainly signal to John Q that Amtrak is "for real", and are not just putting forth meaningless rhetoric and photo ops such as the Inauguration Special.

At this time Amtrak is "discussing" an order of single-level Long Distance (LD) cars comprising 25 Diners and Sleepers each, and 75 Baggage Dormitory cars. Also under discussion are 130 bi-level Coaches which obviously would be assigned away from the Northeast Corridor.

Whatever builder, domestic or foreign, is to be awarded the prime contract to build any such equipment, all can be assured that it will have substantial US content. In all likelihood, that US content will include final assembly with the attendant "photo-ops'. After all, how many photo-ops arose from Amtrak's first passenger carrying equipment order when the two ANF Turbo trains were unceremoniously off loaded by crane from a vessel docked at the Port of Baltimore?

Regarding the single-level cars for the LD's I guess it is a case of if you are going to continue to have 'em and I believe, right or wrong notwithstanding, such will be the case, you had best have roadworthy equipment for such. Having to set out a, say, bad ordered Diner en-route has a way of tying up a Class I's 'bread and butter', let alone passenger inconvenience and the spate of letters of the "Congressman, my Amtrak had no food and I got hungry...." varietal.

Regarding the 130 bi-level cars, what concerns me is every time I hear the "Perils of Pauline" tales regarding state fiscal woes, I have to ask how long can those with major programs such as California continue to fund trains? Somehow I think the health and welfare of a child comes first. Same of course applies to states with more limited programs such as Illinois. If local jurisdictions are serious about continued funding of intercity trains, best they seek grants from the Federal Transit Administration for needed equipment and not from Amtrak's appropriations. If Amtrak acquires additional cars for Locally funded services, then the local sponsors are in a position to blackmail the Federal legislative majority (aptly noted as 218 Representatives + 51 Senators + 1 President, or simply 218+51+1) into funding their services saying "you got the cars but we haven't got the $$$$ for the trains; what are you going to do, Feddies"?

All told, I would hold that a more suitable allocation of Amtrak appropriations would be cars for the Federally funded services. In addition to the 125 LD cars noted, 200 standard class (presently branded Northeast Regional) and 40 Acela cars added to the existing 20 sets would represent the best allocation of funds. Should local services live on being fed hand to mouth by their sponsors, that's what displaced Amfleet-I's will be for.

Finally, The New York Times recently editorialized with regards to the "Buy American" language included within enacted ARRA '09 "Stimulus" legislation pointing out that in Today's globalized economy, such a policy can be the double edged sword.